Moving to self-reflection at our 2016 Annual Luncheon - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Moving to self-reflection at our 2016 Annual Luncheon

Interfaith Housing Development Corporation

On Monday, Jan. 9, MPC brought together the leaders of two international organizations to talk about improving opportunities and equity in Chicagoland.

I am writing this the morning after Metropolitan Planning Council’s (MPC) most successful fundraiser ever, if you judge a fundraiser by how much money it brought in—and this would certainly be the traditional measure of success. We hosted more than a thousand attendees and exceeded our fundraising goal of $1,000,000.

As I think about the event, though, I’m reflective about what else we accomplished. The event was entitled “Challenging Inequality, Driving Growth: The Economic Implications of Segregation.” And I’m wondering how many of us grappled with what “moving from generosity to justice,” as co-keynote speaker and Ford Foundation President Darren Walker framed it, might look like in our personal and professional lives. How many of us experienced moments of real discomfort? These were part of our success measures for our Challenging Inequality luncheon as well.

At the Luncheon, we wanted to create a space to explore what Chicago Community Trust President Terry Mazany, who introduced the speakers, called the “persistent but invisible hand of white privilege.” We wanted to create a space where people were willing to be uncomfortable enough to, as our speakers modeled, interrogate themselves.

And our keynote speakers, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation President Julia Stasch and Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, certainly did that in a rare public conversation. The self-interrogation began with their own organizations: Julia Stasch reflected on criticism the MacArthur Foundation has received for what some perceived as a lack of investment in smaller, Chicago community-based organizations led by people of color. She noted they are listening more, and at times what they’ve heard has made them uncomfortable. “But,” she noted, “you take your lessons where you get them.”

In the case of the Ford Foundation, Walker has reflected publicly on how in a recent, lengthy process of redefining their work on inequality, the Foundation failed to consider systemic issues of inequality faced by people with disabilities.

Both Stasch and Walker noted their renewed commitment to auditing themselves, to challenging their own “privilege, arrogance and ignorance” as Walker put it, and as Stasch noted, running everything from their vendor relationships to their grantmaking through the test of whether it meets the definition of “just” from their mission statement.

What might similar reflection mean for the rest of us—personally, organizationally, as neighborhoods, cities and regions? MPC's video bringing together disparate voices from around the region on the topic of segregation lends some insights:

Bringing it close to home, MPC has its share of self-reflection to do given our 82-year history.

Author Beryl Satter, in her 2010 book Family Properties, calls out the then-named Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council for working with other prominent actors in the 1940s to “minimize the black presence in Hyde Park” and for championing land clearance in “blighted” areas for corporate gain in a process that pioneered urban renewal.

If we assume best intentions, we might surmise that former MPC leaders did not foresee that efforts to address overcrowded housing in poor conditions would lead to what many termed “Negro removal” and to the construction of highly segregated public housing. That may not matter. To paraphrase Ta-Nehisi Coates, the intentions of individual actors are irrelevant; it is ultimately the result that matters. In our historical self-reflection, it is equally relevant that MPC was instrumental in establishing the Urban Community Conservation Act and the City’s first housing code, among other positives. Organizations, like the people they employ, are complicated.  

Yet as self-critiques go, this is relatively painless; after all, there’s no one left alive to be offended. It is far harder to examine the right now. And if we’re going to have two heads of international foundations self-reflect in front of 1,000 guests, it feels like we should be doing the same.

As we study the cost of segregation in Chicago today, we’ve been asking ourselves these sorts of questions—both as an organization and as a city and region. Having this conversation has stirred up questions about our past, present and future that are vital to answer.

Part one of our study, due out this spring, will provide new information on the impact of economic and racial segregation to regions across the country and to metropolitan Chicago specifically.

Part two, which we anticipate by year-end, will answer two questions: What do we do about it, and how? Part of that work is certainly policy design, which we’ve been working on with seven working groups of experts over the past year. But what are policies without political courage? What are policies if we haven’t acknowledged the sources—historical and ongoing—of our problems?

These are the questions I’m grappling with following MPC’s luncheon on challenging inequality. How about you?

PNC was the Presenting Sponsor of MPC’s Annual Luncheon for the 10th year in a row. See a full list of sponsors.

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For more than 80 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has made the Chicago region a better place to live and work by partnering with businesses, communities and governments to address the area's toughest planning and development challenges. MPC works to solve today's urgent problems while consistently thinking ahead to prepare the region for the needs of tomorrow. Read more about our work »

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